Leading off for the Cincinnati Reds…
Who should end that sentence? There is more weeping and gnashing of teeth among Reds fans about the way manager Bryan Price constructs his lineup than almost any other topic surrounding the club, and arguably the biggest complaint is embodied in the leadoff question. Lucky for us, it’s an easy answer.
It’s easy to answer because, among the players who are mostly in the everyday lineup, there are really only two incorrect answers to that question: Billy Hamilton and Jose Peraza. Neither of them should be leading off for the Reds, because they simply don’t get on base enough.
You likely already know this, but let’s get to the punch line: The Reds have played 75 games so far this season. Hamilton and Peraza have been penciled in at the top of the lineup in 74 of those contests.
Look, things are different than they used to be. The kids are listenin’ to the rock and roll music these days, their hair is too long, and don’t even get me started on them Facebook machines they carry around all day and all night, just a-textin’ and a-snappin’.* And baseball has changed, too! Every team used to have a speedy leadoff hitter who could steal a bunch of bases and all the old-timers didn’t care whether they ever got on base. It was perfect that way!
*Also: Get off my lawn!
Except it wasn’t perfect at all, and nearly everyone now concedes that a team maximizes its opportunities to score runs if you have high on-base percentages at the top of the lineup. It came upon us slowly, but around the league, the leadoff philosophy has changed. Earlier this spring, Zach Kram at The Ringer did an excellent deep-dive into the leadoff revolution that’s well worth your time:
First, it’s less important that a leadoff man be able to steal a base than that he be able to reach base at all. As Cleveland manager Terry Francona summarizes when explaining his decision to hit Santana, who holds a career .365 OBP, first last season, “On-base percentage for your guys up in the order is important because you’re going to have your best run producers behind them.”
This year’s Reds have some serious run producers in the middle of their order, including 3 of the top 15 home run hitters in the National League (Joey Votto, Scott Schebler, Adam Duvall). And that’s not even mentioning hard-hitting third baseman Eugenio Suarez and The Legend of Scooter Gennett. Cincinnati has one of the top three offenses in the league by almost any measure.
If nearly everyone recognizes that it’s important to have high on-base percentages hitting in front of your top run producers, why does Bryan Price insist on hitting players with OBPs of .290 (Hamilton) and .285 (Peraza) at the top of the order? Why has the leadoff revolution passed Cincinnati by?
You’ll have to ask Price that question, because I’m perplexed. Cincinnati’s leadoff hitters have a collective OBP of .286. Only one spot in the order has a lower rate of getting on base: the pitcher’s spot, at .215. Cincinnati’s #8 hitters get on base at a .330 clip, for crying out loud!
(For the record, hitters who bat third in this year’s Reds lineup have an OBP of .413. Because Joey Votto.)
It’s almost like Price decided to troll all of us, explicitly choosing to pick the guys who got on base the least to hit in front of Votto, et al. “Haha!” says Price, in my fevered imagination. “I’ll show those number crunching stat nerds in their momma’s basements! Wait’ll they get a load of this!”
So who should Price hit at the top of the order? As I said earlier, literally anyone else would be a better choice. I am, however, going to answer that question with more specificity in just a moment. Let’s run through the candidates.
Many are clamoring for Zack Cozart—when healthy—to hit first. This season, with Cozart posting a .404 OBP, that would work out just fine indeed. Of course, before this season, Cozart’s on-base percentage was .289 over five years and 2,500-plus at-bats. Not ideal.
If you remove Hamilton, Peraza and, by default, Cozart from consideration, then you have to get a little creative. Or at least more creative than Cincinnati managers have been, historically. (Remember Deion Sanders? Or Willy Taveras?)
Other managers around the league are getting creative, of course. Take a look at Joe Maddon over in Chicago. After trying the powerful Kyle Schwarber as his leadoff hitter, Maddon has lately placed slugging All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo at the top of the order in 11 games. Rizzo has responded with a .333/.400/.714 slash line and four home runs.
What about Houston manager AJ Hinch? His leadoff hitter, George Springer, has 22 home runs while hitting .280/.356/.556. Rizzo and Springer have combined for 5 stolen bases; Hamilton and Peraza have 46 SBs.
Again, this is the new model:
Second, the higher a player appears in the order, the more plate appearances he will collect, and those extra chances should distribute to the best hitters in a lineup, not just the fastest ones. “You know, the computer will tell you that your best hitter should hit first, and your second-best hitter should hit second, your third-best hitter should hit third,” Showalter says. “The whole idea is to get them to the plate as many times as possible, and … sometimes I think that might be correct. If you led off your best player, hit him first instead of third or fourth, you’d probably get him 40 or 50 more at-bats in a year.” Showalter’s math is correct. Analyst Mitchel Lichtman estimates that each jump up the batting order increases total plate appearances by 2.5 percent, which, over the course of a 650-PA season, yields a 49-PA increase between the cleanup and leadoff spots.
Which means the answer is clear: Joey Votto should be Cincinnati’s leadoff hitter. The guy is hitting .305/.416/.588 with 20 homers. He has the highest OBP in Reds franchise history. He’d be on base all the time in front of the other big bats. Plus, how much fun would that be?
That’s probably not going to happen. If Price is still clinging to the notion that you need a speedy guy at the top of the order, he isn’t going to swing all the way to the other extreme overnight. So I have another proposal.
First things first: if Hamilton could get on base at a league-average clip—as he did last year—I’d go ahead and let him hit at the top of the order. He creates enough havoc on the base path that he’d be valuable in that role. But, even though I think Hamilton is still a valuable player and should be in the lineup, I’m beginning to wonder whether he’ll ever get on base consistently. He should be hitting eighth (or ninth) in the order until he proves otherwise.
So in my mind, the non-Votto choice is clear: Eugenio Suarez should be leading off. Suarez is clearly best suited, among Cincinnati’s everyday eight, to hit atop the order. Though he has cooled off recently, Suarez still has a .364 OBP, he got on base at a reasonable clip in the minors, and he’s showing signs of making real, sustainable improvements as a hitter this season.
(While we’re at it, I think you could also make a case for Schebler in that role, and my outside-the-box choice would be Devin Mesoraco and his .374 OBP. But that would definitely be a paradigm shift in the Queen City, even more so than moving Votto to that spot.)
With Suarez leading off, I’d bat Votto second, and there would be boatloads of scoring opportunities for the Duvalls and Scheblers and Cozarts and Scooters of the world. It almost makes too much sense, and Price is missing a big opportunity to think innovatively here.
On the other hand, it really doesn’t matter that much. After all, the offense has been spectacular with Hamilton as the primary leadoff hitter, right? As noted over at FanGraphs:
When it comes to sabermetric studies, no single item sees more energy expended with less gain than the analysis of batting orders. The Book basically opened and shut the door on the issue: the best three hitters should bat first, second, and fourth, but even the most egregious of lineup errors won’t cost a team more than a win.
No, it doesn’t have a huge effect on any individual game, and not much of a cumulative effect either. But incremental improvement in a team’s performance is still actual improvement. Shouldn’t Price and Reds management be in the business of looking for opportunities to improve Cincinnati’s run-scoring opportunities, even on the margins?
With the sorry state of the Cincinnati pitching rotation, the Reds need all the help they can get. Which is why it’s long past time to move Suarez to the top of the lineup. (Unless, of course, you prefer Votto…)